Down a river and back in time

Harpers Ferry is a favorite of rafters, hikers and history buffs

September 25, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Sun Reporter

This is where the Shenandoah meets the Potomac, where the Appalachian Trail joins the C&O Canal path, where past and present converge as well.

A lot of things come together in the misty, mystic hamlet of Harpers Ferry, W.Va. - often, in its history, tragically so.

Here, abolitionists led by John Brown clashed with backers of slavery in an ill-fated attempt to take over an arsenal and launch a slave revolt.

Here, north meets south, as the two sides did repeatedly - less than two years after Brown's attack - during the Civil War. Control of the town changed hands eight times.

And here, two rivers become one, forming a boundary between three states. The rivers led to the town's settlement, to its name (Robert Harper ran a ferry linking Maryland to what was then Virginia) and to the floods that have both erased and revealed pieces of its past.

Harpers Ferry is a study in confluence, a testament to survival, a wellspring of well-kept history and an undulating masterpiece of nature that can be hiked, biked, camped, rafted, kayaked, tubed or simply gazed at from a mountaintop.

Just over an hour from Baltimore, it's an easy day trip, but it's also ideal for a weekend escape: Getting there won't chew up most of the time or most of the gas money.

And best of all, it's not a mob scene. While thousands pass through every weekend, most drawn by whitewater rafting and tubing, Harpers Ferry has managed to balance capitalism and conservation - they converge here, too - largely because most of the town is owned by the National Park Service.

Within two days, and a limit of $500, I managed to flow with the rivers; climb with the mountains; step back in time through historic sites, demonstrations and museums; spend two nights in hotels, including an inn where Mark Twain once slept; and throw away $100 at nearby Charles Town Races & Slots.

My plan was to drive to West Virginia's eastern panhandle, take an afternoon whitewater rafting trip for which I had reservations (both kinds), and then enjoy a night on the town.

Rafting the river

Except for the night on the town, things went according to plan. I arrived in Harpers Ferry in time for a quick lunch before reporting to River Riders, which I had chosen online from five outfits that offer to send you down the river, whether it be by tube (the most popular), raft or kayak. Most operate trips into October.

As instructed, I did not bring anything that couldn't get wet. I left my car keys behind, wore old shoes (water shoes, and most other necessities, can be purchased in the store) and arrived early to sign a liability release.

Joining the crowd outside, I watched a safety video, which warned of such hazards as "foot entrapment," which can occur when one tries to stand up in whitewater. Your foot can get lodged between rocks and the rushing water can force you underwater. Good to know. Better yet was learning to avoid it - by floating on your back with your feet in front of you. Sharp rocks will tear up only your rear end, as opposed to more vital body parts.

Issued life jackets, paddles and helmets, we boarded the bus for the ride to the starting point, during which the guides told jokes, mostly about West Virginians.

At the river, we were assigned to rafts. I got placed with a family of five, Nancy and Greg Pekala of Ellicott City, and their three children. Our guide was "Deliverance" - the bus-ride comic - a three-year veteran from Kentucky whose real name is Brian Lyons. He told us where to sit and gave us a quick lesson in paddling.

It being summer, and not a particularly wet one, the water was low - meaning the rapids would be a little less rapid, the rocks a little more protruding.

As we set off down the Shenandoah - an Indian name locals say means "daughter of the stars"- the river was smooth, but not long into the seven-mile, three-hour trip we hit the first of a half-dozen decent rapids.

Deliverance guided us through the whitewater ably (and did most of the work), keeping us right-side up and avoiding getting stuck on the rocks.

After a couple of hours filled with horseplay, paddling and peaceful drifting, we floated past Harpers Ferry and into the Potomac. Needing to cool off, I tried taunting the Pekala children into pushing me overboard, but they were too polite. So I rolled off the raft and floated downriver a while on my own, managing to bang one knee and scrape two fingers on rocks. (What good is a whitewater experience if you don't emerge with at least one boo-boo?)

The National Park Service, which regulates the outfitters (and most anything else that goes on in Harpers Ferry), doesn't recommend swimming in the river - they don't monitor it for pollution - but it seems safe enough to float in.

Back on shore, I checked into the Quality Inn, just up the road, and, after a much-needed shower, drove the two miles to Harpers Ferry for dinner.

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